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Dickinson College Stellfox Award Recipient Roberto Saviano Proves That the Pen Is Mightier Than the Mafia

Roberto Saviano, 2020 stellfox award

Roberto Saviano (second from right) talks with students in an Italian class during his five-day residency. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Award-winning Italian writer shares his own dramatic story during his 2020 Stellfox residency

by Shayyan Malik '21; video by Joe O'Neill

When Roberto Saviano was condemned to death by multiple Italian Mafia families more than a decade ago, he didn’t know what his future would hold. Saviano, a writer whose most recent book was found in El Chapo's hideout, is known for his courage and zeal against organized crime. And he was on campus last week for a residency through the The Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Artists and Writers Program.

“There was a buzz following him everywhere he went, and he was incredibly generous with his time and advice for students and faculty,” said Adjunct Faculty in Film & Media Studies James Guardino. “Roberto said being on campus was ‘paradise.’ ”

Saviano’s breakout work, Gomorrah, uncovers elements of organized crime in Italy. Since its publication in 2006, Saviano has faced death threats from the Neapolitan Mafia, which has led to him living under armed guard. But that has not stopped him. He continues to speak out against crime through his books, public lectures, articles and media appearances. As the recipient of the 2020 Stellfox Award, the celebrated writer spent five days on campus, which included a public reading, an exclusive book signing, an award ceremony, a Q&A session, classroom visits and workshops, and small-group gatherings with students and professors.

“It was a unique experience that gave me not only a strong emotion when meeting curious and passionate students, at times surprised by what was said, it also left me with a feeling of hope—the possibility that study and research are still the fundamental elements that bring people together,” said Saviano, who went on to praise Dickinson’s academic traditions and cultures. “The way topics are approached and studied here is fundamental. You shape a critical thought, you build the ability to analyze, which can then be used to tackle any type of topic. It is as if here you develop the anatomy of the thought, whereas a technical education starts from an already shaped body and teaches the action. Here you teach something before the action. ... And seeing that is fantastic.”

“I thought it was interesting hearing Saviano talk about authenticity especially nowadays that we live in a world where a lot of filmmakers and authors tend to use other people's ideas instead of theirs,” said Oosie Imoro ’21 (international business & management) after interacting with Saviano in his film & media studies class.

"He has an interesting path. He had a story to tell, and he used every media at his disposal to do so," added Austin Seabolt ’20 (policy management).

Roberto Saviano Stellfox Group Photo

Each Stellfox Award recipient re-creates a photo taken of Robert Frost surrounded by students on the steps of Old West during his 1959 visit. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

The Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program was established in honor of Jean Louise Stellfox '60, who was inspired to become an English teacher after meeting Robert Frost during the poet’s visit to Dickinson in 1959. When she died in 2003, Stellfox’s estate provided $1.5 million to the college to continue her mission of inspiring students through literature. Stellfox established the gift in honor of her parents, Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox. Previous Stellfox Award recipients include: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Edward Albee and John Patrick Shanley; Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Rita Dove and Paul Muldoon; Guggenheim Fellow Naomi Shihab Nye; National Book Award-winner and MacArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat; Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; award-winning novelist and journalist Boubacar Boris Diop; and Booker Prize-winning authors Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood.

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Published March 10, 2020